Wakeup call: Early starts have not been fun for 49ers

Last week’s GPS game against the Seahawks Rams (or whichever dreadful team they played) established that the 49ers are not the worst team in the NFL. In fact, the 49ers would pick No. 7 overall if the draft were held today.

The 49ers’ game Sunday against the Cowboys will provide a good indication of where the club stands as it heads into a brutal stretch of games to finish the season.


As written about in my Saturday notebook, the 49ers are 3-26 in games with a 10 a.m. (Pacific time) start since Steve Mariucci was canned as head coach. The 49ers have four of those 10 a.m. starts in the next five weeks, beginning Sunday in Dallas. — By the way, those rare early victories have come against the Rams twice (’05 and ’07) and Lions (’06).–


Speaking of Dallas, the 49ers arrived there Friday night. Today, is the 45th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination in downtown Dallas. “That’s really interesting,” 49ers coach Mike Singletary said. “I remember what kind of day that was for the country, even as a kid.”


Now, let’s get on to the key matchups for the 49ers’ final trip to Texas Stadium (unless, you know, the teams meet in the playoffs this season):


Niners CB Nate Clements vs. Cowboys WR Terrell Owens: As I’m writing about for Sunday’s paper, the secret to the success of the Owens-Tony Romo pairing has been that Romo said he really does not listen to what Owens says. That’s a great strategy for the quarterback. However, you can rest assured that offensive coordinator Jason Garrett was listening when Owens complained this week about the lack of flexibility in the offense. That’s Owens’ way of saying he should be getting the ball a lot more. Look for Garrett to apply some grease to that squeaky wheel. Owens has just 40 catches for 505 yards on the season – ranking 39th in the NFL in both categories. These are the matchups in which Clements earns his money.


CB Walt Harris vs. WR Roy Williams: Harris fared well against Williams when they went head-to-head earlier this season. Williams caught just two passes for 18 yards as Harris shadowed Williams during the 49ers’ victory over the Lions. But Williams has a much better supporting cast now. He is still finding his way in the new offense, but he remains one of the more dangerous receivers in the league.


LB Manny Lawson vs. TE Jason Witten: It’s been a disappointing season for Lawson, who has been marginalized by the 49ers’ reliance on their “big sub” package. When the 49ers send in an extra defensive back, Lawson is the first one to hit the sideline. But, today, the 49ers need to keep Lawson on the field. He should get a crack to hang with Witten, who leads the Cowboys with 48 catches for 583 yards. Lawson must re-route Witten off the line of scrimmage and even cover him down the field. This is Lawson’s biggest test of the season.


LB Patrick Willis vs. RB Marion Barber: Willis missed two days of practice this week with a hip strain and an “illness.” He better be at full strength Sunday, as he must contend with one of the hardest runners in the league. Barber (6-0, 225) is an absolute load to bring down, especially in the fourth quarter when the Cowboys are trying to protect a lead. Willis is having a strong second season. This is about the time a year ago that he found an extra gear and his tackle totals skyrocketed.


DE Justin Smith vs. LT Flozell Adams: Smith has been everything the 49ers envisioned when they signed him. He does everything well, including playing hard for 60 minutes. Adams has given up six sacks for 50 yards this season, so Smith might have some opportunities to get back in the sack category. The 49ers’ pass rush has been lacking for most of the season. Smith has three sacks and leads the club with 35 quarterback pressures.


Offensive coordinator Mike Martz vs. head coach Wade Phillips: Although Brian Stewart is the Cowboys’ defensive coordinator, it’s really Phillips who calls the shots on this side of the ball. Martz needs to keep things balanced against the Cowboys’ aggressive 3-4 defense. There has to be a steady diet of Frank Gore’s running to slow down the Dallas pass rush and open things up for Shaun Hill. And Hill has to take the occasional shot down the field to spread out the defense and keep things uncongested underneath. That’s where Hill is more comfortable working.


C Eric Heitmann vs. NT Jay Ratliff: Heitmann will not be able to handle Ratliff alone, so he’ll need to have good communication with guards David Baas and rookie Chilo Rachal. You can bet Ratliff will want to take advantage of Rachal’s inexperience to split those double-team blocks. Ratliff has been outstanding this season, racking up six sacks on the season. He had two sacks and three QB pressures last week against the Redskins.


LT Joe Staley vs. OLB DeMarcus Ware: Crowd noise will play a factor in this matchup, as Staley might not be able to hear the snap count. That means Ware can use his quickness as an even bigger weapon. Ware has recorded at least one sack in all but one game this season. He is tied for the NFC lead with 11 sacks on the season. Staley has gotten better and better as the season has progressed, but he’s never faced a challenge like this one.


WR Bryant Johnson vs. CB Anthony Henry: Johnson has not made many excuses this season, but is only now recovered from several leg problems he experienced through the first half of the season. He sustained a hamstring strain on the first route of the 49ers’ joint practice with the Raiders in Napa on Aug. 4. While trying to compensate for that problem, he sustained a groin strain that limited his availability. During one five-week span, Johnson caught just four passes. Isaac Bruce has been virtually invisible – aside from his Week 2 outburst against the Seahawks – so Johnson is clearly the 49ers’ most dangerous outside threat. The Cowboys might not have the services of top corner Terence Newman (groin) in this game. Also, Jason Hill will get some opportunities against rookie Mike Jenkins in the slot.


KR/PR Allen Rossum vs. Cowboys coverage units: If the 49ers hope to hang tough, they’ll have to get a bunch of hidden yards in the return game from Rossum and Co. The 49ers rank sixth in the league in punt-return average and ninth in kickoff returns. The Cowboys’ coverage units are 18th (punts) and 13th (kickoffs), so they will have their hands full against Rossum, who is having an outstanding season.


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Check out how much of the country will have access to Fox-TV’s coverage of Sunday’s 49ers-Cowboys game.


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